If you’re looking for a TV around Black Friday, chances are, you’re not sure what to get. There are lots of deals! Some of them are good. Most of them are bad. How does anyone figure any of it out? What’s the best choice?
Let me save you some heartache right now: There’s no best choice. But if you’re looking for a 4K television on a moderate budget, the TCL 6-Series (R617/615) is probably the smartest choice for the money.
No matter what 4K TV you buy — and whether you buy it this week for Black Friday, next spring when new models come out, or years in the future — something about it isn’t going to be perfect, and a better one is going to come out sooner than you’re prepared to admit (unless, of course, you got a Samsung KS8000, which is as close to a remorse-free television purchase as I think has existed in TVs since 4K became a thing).
And more frustratingly, some of next year’s TVs are going to be worse in some ways than this year’s TVs, just as some of this year’s TVs are worse in some ways than last year’s TVs. 4K televisions got cheap more quickly than manufacturers expected, and everyone is trying to figure out how to make TVs that are better while saving money by cutting features that people seem to care about less.
The point here is: Make a 4K TV buying decision knowing that there are very few right answers — just your best choice, the best you can make for yourself at a given moment. Let go of your TV white whale, and you’ll be a lot happier with whatever you end up with.
It’s also worth mentioning that at certain price points, a 4K TV just isn’t worth investing in. There are now 4K displays that retail for $200-300, but they offer uniformly poor peak brightness and wide color gamut, both key to HDR content. You’re just not going to get the most out of what you’re watching with these screens.
Our recommendations here assume a baseline of 4K performance — that you’re looking for a display that offers reasonable contrast, color reproduction and brightness. In other words, a TV that provides a reasonable 4K/HDR experience.
The recommendations here assume you’re looking for a new 2018 model. Canny purchasers may be able to find some of 2017’s better deals on eBay or on Amazon’s outlet store, albeit with different warranties and caveats involved. Unfortunately, televisions are discontinued once manufacturers roll out annual revisions, so it becomes difficult to reliably track down older models by this time of year.
A note: Technical specifications and measurements here are taken from Rtings.com, which is, in my opinion, the best resource for television information out there. The people at Rtings are incredibly thorough and scrupulous, they respond to reader feedback, and they provide calibration instructions for every set they review. You should visit their site, even if it makes you question your 4K TV purchasing decisions on a regular basis.
The best 4K TV under $1,000: TCL R617
The 55-inch TCL R617/615 is a good, easy-to-recommend choice for games and movies in 4K on a budget. It outperforms just about every other TV in its price range, and a number of TVs well beyond it. The R615 is a Best Buy-exclusive version of the display that sells for a bit cheaper, but comes with an RF remote that requires line of sight to function. The R617 — which includes a fancier voice-enabled remote — is as close to a universal recommendation as you’re likely to find across TV review sites in 2018: It’s favored at Rtings, CNET and Wirecutter, but I want to stress why (and express a tiny bit of frustration).
The R617 has really good peak brightness, which is important for HDR. It’s got a pretty good contrast ratio and good black uniformity. This sounds boring! The point is that HDR highlights — which the people making games in HDR and mastering movies for the format want to look really bright and contrasty — will look, well, really bright and contrasty. It’s a TV that does a good job of getting the results that 4K content is supposed to achieve. It also supports both HDR10 and the better-but-slightly-less-prevalent Dolby Vision format.
For people playing games on the R617, there’s also good news. First, input latency is really good, and it’s good without qualifications. Many TVs have low input latency with 1080p content, or even 4K content, but struggle with 4K/HDR signals. The R617 is not one of them. Per Rtings, for 4K gaming at 60 Hz set to 4:4:4 with HDR enabled — which you’ll want for the best color reproduction on an Xbox One X or PS4 Pro — input lag is 19.6 ms.
That’s really, really good. That’s just over a frame of latency for 60 fps content. And unlike on some other TVs, every input on the R617 appears to offer the same performance, rather than low latency being limited to one port — which, on many TVs, has HDR disabled.
In addition, the Roku smart TV platform powering the R617 is really quite good. I personally prefer to use a game console or dedicated box for smart TV features, because I use a receiver for surround sound, and the ways you get sound from a TV to a receiver feel tantamount to animal sacrifice with a less consistent success rate (feel free to Google “ARC not working”). For users relying on a TV’s built-in sound or a sound bar, there’s no reason not to use the native smart TV features. Also, the R617’s support for Comcast’s Xfinity Stream app for on-demand and live TV content is leaps and bounds better than any cable box I’ve ever used.
Caveats and frustrations
If you don’t have a sound bar or AV receiver, you might consider them. Most entry- and even mid-level TVs have mediocre built-in speakers, and the R617 is no exception. It also only has three HDMI inputs, which could become an issue if you’re a multiplatform player. Other, more expensive LED sets generally offer a wider color gamut, and display less banding in gradients.
These are things that many people will never, ever notice, but they’re worth mentioning. In the head-scratcher category, the R617 has a slightly worse contrast ratio than last year’s wunderkind TV bargain from TCL, the R607, but the R617 is brighter. The R617’s color gamut is still quite good, but not quite as good as on last year’s model, and the R607 had fewer problems with banding.
The biggest problem with the R617 is its viewing angle. Per Rtings’ measurements, brightness and color reproduction begin to degrade noticeably 17 degrees away from its center point. If you’re in a large room with a lot of seating to the sides of the screen, people away from that middle space are going to have a much worse viewing experience. All LED screens are bad at this, it’s true, but the R617 is somewhat more bad at it than other, more expensive LED TVs.
Unfortunately, this is the trade-off you have to be willing to accept in 2018 when buying a new 4K television for under $800. Even much more expensive televisions have similar problems.
What if I want to spend less?
55-inch Vizio M-Series (2018)
Vizio’s M-Series for 2018 has good blacks, decent brightness and great input lag performance. It’s also got four HDMI inputs, which is nice! However, the M-Series features subpar color reproduction for wide color gamut content, meaning you’re not going to get as much out of HDR content. Also, the TV’s built-in app and menu performance is not great. It’s probably worth spending the extra money for the R617, but if you’d rather not, the M-Series is fine.
What if I want a bigger TV with similar performance?
Vizio 65-inch P-Series (2018)
At 65 inches, the Vizio P-Series’ pricing is more competitive with the TCL R617, for similarly good picture quality. It also includes five HDMI ports. However, its HDMI inputs are not uniform in that port 5 — which provides the lowest input latency on the television, at 15.3 ms for 4K content — doesn’t support 4:4:4 and HDR signals. Other HDMI inputs on the television support 4K and HDR, with input latency of 27 ms at 4K (with game mode enabled). This is playable, but lags behind other sets discussed here.
What if I want one of the best 4K TVs, even if I have to pay a lot?
LG 55-inch C8 OLED
LG’s OLED screens have been considered something of a gold standard for televisions for several years now, and 2018’s sets continue to impress. On Black Friday in 2018, the LG C8 should be on sale for around $1,700, a fairly steep discount. That $1,100 price premium over the TCL 6-Series gets you “perfect blacks,” excellent color performance and fantastic contrast.
However, the C8’s gaming performance is worse, with 4K HDR signals registering input latency of 29.4 ms in game mode. That’s not amazing for a 2018 television, but it’s still very playable. In addition, while OLED screens’ contrast performance is fantastic, they still can’t get quite as bright as the highest-end LED sets, which can present problems in rooms with lots of sunlight and glare. It’s also important to know that OLED screens are susceptible to burn-in and image retention in certain circumstances, so owners should research how best to take this into account so as to avoid damaging their display permanently.
And if you want an OLED TV that’s bigger than 55 inches, well, you’ll be getting into “good used car” territory pricewise.